A conversation with Machiavelli's ghost: Controversial neoconservative Ledeen talks to Raw Story

Larisa Alexandrovna
Published: February 28, 2006

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In an exclusive series of interviews with Raw Story Managing News Editor Larisa Alexandrovna, controversial Neoconservative scholar and Iran Contra figure Michael Ledeen discusses his background, alleged controversies, and offers remarkable revelations regarding the Bush administration's "War on Terror."

Part one in this series of interviews focuses on current US foreign policy and how it relates to the neoconservative world view, as well as how such a policy can be seen against the backdrop of history. Ledeen speaks out against torture and calls for accountability at all levels, including the White House, should an investigation lead in that direction.

"Punish all the guilty parties, whoever they are, and do everything possible to prevent anything of the sort happening again," Ledeen says.


When asked about the failure of the media with regard to reporting accurately and abundantly on such harsh interrogation techniques, Ledeen says that he disagrees, but also says that "If you're going to attack media for insufficient coverage of Abu Ghraib, etc., then you should also hammer them for failing to report the 'other side of the story.'"

He describes his view of Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of Defense and now head of the World Bank, in terms of ability, stating that he does not "really know what Wolfowitz thinks, and I have always looked at him as a manager, not an intellectual."

Leedeen, who is best known for his involvement as a courier in the Iran-Contra scandal, describes himself as a democratic revolutionary. He believes that mankind is inclined toward war and has a dismal, Hobbesian view of history. Against that context, he says, "I'm not sure Machiavelli was wrong when he said that 'man is more inclined to do evil than to do good.'"

Michael Ledeen currently holds the Freedom Chair at the most influential think tank in the nation, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), considered the nucleus of neoconservative and conservative thought. So much so, that President Bush has said of AEI that "You do such good work that my administration has borrowed 20 such minds."

Ledeen is mostly known to the lay public, if he is known at all, for his involvement in the Iran Contra scandal, in which he acted as courier on behalf of Robert McFarland, then National Security Advisor to President Reagan, and the various members of Israel's leadership and the CIA and vouched for Iranian arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar.

Ledeen currently serves as an associate editor for the conservative publication, The National Review and was a founding member of the Jewish Institution for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

The Democratic revolutionary

Raw Story's Larisa Alexandrovna: Let's begin with the basics. There has been a great deal of confusion in terms of Israel and how it relates to neoconservatives and how both relate to the Bush administration's foreign policy, including the war in Iraq. Can you help clarify some of this, not just by simple definitions, but how each relates to one another? How is Zionism different or the same as neoconservatism and how does it relate to the current foreign policy?

Michael Ledeen: You mean are all neoconservatives Jews? Or is it some kind of Jewish thing? Clearly not, unless you think that Bush and Cheney are closet Jews.

RS: No, I don't mean "are all Neoconservatives Jews" as I know they are not; then again, not all Jews are Zionists either. I am trying to get a clear sense of how you see Zionism and how or rather, if, either of those philosophies may be driving the Bush/Cheney foreign policy or if the Bush/Cheney foreign policy is using Neoconservatism as a shield against criticism (anyone who disagrees does not support Israel type thing). Obviously, the Iraq war has made Iran the winner, not Israel.

ML: I describe myself as a democratic revolutionary, I don't think of myself as "conservative" at all. Indeed it seems to me that most self-described leftists today are reactionaries, and have lost the right to describe themselves as people of the left.

RS: When you say you are not a "conservative," you are addressing a false distinction because Neoconservatism has its roots on the left, in socialist ideology, yet is closely aligned to the conservatives in the US and the rightist Likud party in Israel. Perhaps a better way to ask this would be to ask if you are closer in your ideology to Richard Perle, Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz or are you closer to Francis Fukuyama, who recently announced Neoconservatism as dead?

ML: Well I'm a democratic revolutionary, albeit not a socialist. I haven't read Fukuyama's latest writings, but I wasn't at all convinced by the "end of history" thesis.

I don't really know what Wolfowitz thinks, and I have always looked at him as a manager, not an intellectual. He hasn't ever had the time or inclination to write anything serious, so who knows? He once suggested that Iraq was like pre-World War I Germany, which I didn't agree with.

I think you're right to say that I have roots in the left, which is the point I was trying to make when I said I didn't think of myself as a "conservative." Leo Strauss once said that it was hard to understand how the word "virtue," which once meant the manliness of men, came to mean the virginity of women. In like manner I am perplexed at how revolutionaries are now called "conservatives."
It's very misleading, and very political. The left, which has become reactionary and counterrevolutionary, wants to stigmatize people who advocate democratic revolution, and so they use the word "conservative," which for the left is an epithet.

RS: And on Zionism?

ML: I really don't see it in those terms at all, and I doubt--although I really have no way of knowing--that either [President George] Bush or [Vice President Dick] Cheney does either. I don't view Israel in "Zionist" terms, I don't have relatives there, I don't travel there very much and on balance I have a dim view of most Israeli political figures and Israeli intellectuals.

I think it was right to provide a sanctuary for the European Jews after the Holocaust, and as I've said I think it's right and automatic for Americans to support Israel vis-a-vis the tyrannical regimes that want to destroy it.

And I feel much the same way about Iraq and Afghanistan, both of whom have started down the road to freedom, and who are now hated and under attack by the tyrants in the region.

RS: How does this translate to US foreign policy and responsibility?

ML: Most Americans support free countries, and so it's only logical for the United States to support democratic Israel. It's the right thing to do. We should always support democratic countries that are threatened by antidemocratic tyrannies.

Freedom is on the march

RS: If it is logical for the United States to support democratic nations, then why has the United States regularly subverted the democratic process? This is not new or theoretical of course, this is all well documented history, even recent history clearly shows that. Consider for example Chile's General Pinochet or Zaire's Mobutu.

Or closer to current events, the Saudi royal family, for example, is only in power because the United States protects them against their own citizens, who are largely oppressed and exploited. Yet another example closer to home and current events is Iraq. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship existed for this long because the United States supported that existence with funding, even by providing the chemical weapons that were then used against the Kurds.

So this is not as simple as "we should always support democratic countries." Most people would agree with that sentiment, but the United States does not seem to be adhering to it, as we know even from what we now know to be true about the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany.

ML: You're quite right--and, at least recently, both President Bush and Secretary Rice have explicitly agreed with your point--to say that we have often supported tyrannies. We, along with the whole Western world, shamefully supported Saddam, and convinced ourselves that he was a "new kind of Arab leader," by which was meant a secular socialist, not some crazy religious fanatic as in Iran and not some wild-eyed Arab nationalist as in the case of [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser [of Egypt]. It was obviously a terrible mistake.

RS: While I understand your enthusiasm for the removal of Saddam Hussein, would it not be hypocritical to suggest that the removal of a "tool" by its handler is a victory for freedom?

ML: I don't think most Iraqis agree with that view. I think any time a tyrant falls, it's good news. And the fact that we previously supported the tyrant doesn't change the nature of the event itself. We had a lousy policy for a long time, but then we did something good. I criticize the lousy policy and also celebrate the fall of Saddam.

Can I say something about how I view human nature? I think it will help at least part of this conversation. I have a pretty dim view of human nature, as I think any serious historian must. Most human activities aren't very pretty, most of the time we screw up, it's rare when you find an exceptional person and even in such cases they often fall from grace.

And I'm not sure Machiavelli was wrong when he said that "man is more inclined to do evil than to do good." So I don't have high expectations, and I consider myself fortunate to have lived and worked at a moment when there were several really exceptional leaders in the world, from Reagan and Thatcher to Pope John Paul II to Havel and Walesa and Mandela and so forth. Those moments are rare, and short-lived. You don't see many outstanding leaders today, in my opinion.

So I'm not surprised when our leaders make mistakes, I'm surprised and delighted when they do great things. I think we should support free societies but I'm not surprised when an American president makes a deal with a dictator. And sometimes there isn't any better choice, by the way. I hate Stalin, but I think the wartime alliance against Hitler was the right thing to do, disgusting though it was.
However, I think that we should have been more vigorous against Stalin and his successors once the war was over, and in retrospect I think the Soviet Empire could have ended earlier.

I agree that our support for the Saudi Royal Family is a mistake, and I've said that, and I have always included them in my list of "terror masters," along with Saddam's Iraq, the mullahs' Iran, and the Assads' Syria.

Continued on page two: Holding the torturers accountable...

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